Leroy Grumman: From Aeroplanes to Aerospace

Leroy Grumman: From Aeroplanes to Aerospace
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On June 20, 1911, a young high school senior delivered the salutatory remarks to his graduating class in Huntington, New York. In those remarks, he said:

“The final perfection of the aeroplane will be one of the greatest triumphs that man has ever gained over nature.”

Thus did a teenaged Leroy Grumman foresee man’s conquest of the air for what it would prove to be: The greatest human adventure of the twentieth century. Grumman would be central to that adventure, and more. He would be central to the greatest conflict in human history. He would be central to the revolution in naval warfare. He would be central to the Cold War. He would be central to the evolution of “aeroplanes” to aerospace.

With a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell, Grumman joined the Navy in 1916 and soon won the gold wings of a Naval Aviator. In 1918, the Navy sent him to MIT to study the new discipline of aeronautical engineering. From there, he would go to the Long Island-based Loening Corporation to oversee the production of seaplane floats for the Navy. So impressed was Mr. Loening with the reserved and reticent Grumman that he hired the young officer as soon as the Navy released him.

Leroy Grumman Leroy Grumman
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Ten years later, upon the purchase of Loening by a Pennsylvania company, Grumman chose to strike out on his own. Taking several co-workers with him, the group sold, borrowed or mortgaged everything they could to fund their new company, agreeing to name it after whoever among them owned the most initial stock. That was Leroy and the Grumman Aeronautical Engineering Company was born on January 2, 1930, Leroy Grumman, president.

The company’s first big break came in 1932 with Grumman’s design of an undercarriage for Navy aircraft that could be retracted by the pilot with a hand-crank. The elegant design was just what the Navy sought. Soon thereafter, Grumman dramatically increased the number of planes a carrier could embark with his ingenious “sto-wing” design for folding wings.

With these two successes, the new company was up and running. The 1930’s solidified it as the Navy’s go-to designer with such aircraft as the F2F, F3F, and F4F, each subsequent design reinforcing a distinct personality – radial engine; a thick, stubby fuselage to house it; the burly mien of a bare knuckle brawler.

These were also the years that Grumman solidified his management style. A hands-on manager, he was known to work directly with his engineers, and to take new aircraft aloft for test flights. He and his vice president shared an office and agreed that neither would go home until all disagreements were settled.

With the arrival of war in 1941, the company swelled from 750 employees to a peak of 25,000. Despite the superior performance of initial Japanese aircraft, Grumman’s pre-war designs displayed advantages of their own. Though heavier, slower, and under-powered relative to their weight, they included such features as cockpit armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and up to six .50cal machine guns, which, when properly boresighted, could cut a box car in half.  In the war’s early days, Grumman aircraft often returned to their carriers shot to ribbons, but bearing pilots who were very much alive. The company’s nickname soon became, “Grumman Iron Works.”

F6F Hellcat (image courtesy of the Northrop Grumman History Center in Bethpage, NY.) F6F Hellcat (image courtesy of the Northrop Grumman History Center, Bethpage, NY.)
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In early 1943, Grumman introduced the F6F Hellcat. In one aircraft now resided every advantage of the best American and Japanese fighters. American air dominance over the Pacific was assured.

Grumman design success did not fade with war’s end, but it did evolve. Jet engines replaced the radials, but the aircraft were just as tough, and the new designs just as validated in the heat of combat. As he did as a high school senior, Leroy Grumman saw a new human adventure unfolding for which he determined to prepare his company. He changed the name from Grumman Aeronautical Engineering to Grumman Aerospace. His vision would prove prescient when the company was chosen to build the lunar lander that would see every Apollo astronaut safely to and from the moon’s surface.

When Grumman Aerospace merged with the Northrop Corporation in 1994, an unparalleled legacy of innovation and proven design success was renewed. Leroy Grumman did not live to see the new company, having died in 1982. Though his record of accomplishment would now join others from Northrop’s heritage, Grumman’s was noteworthy. Whereas Tom Jones was a capable engineer but an extraordinary businessman, and Jack Northrop was an extraordinary engineer and a capable businessman, Leroy Grumman was extraordinary in both categories.